Note — May 09, 2021

The Tragedy of the Commons Is a False and Dangerous Myth

Great essay by Michelle Nijhuis at Aeon on the false concept of the tragedy of the commons, and on the oft overlooked yet strongly researched work of Elinor Ostrom which states the opposite. Commons have existed and been perfectly well managed by communities around the world for centuries, they have a number of shared rules, and are still today a solution and source of empowerment. Nijhuis then goes into quite a bit of detail on various projects in Namibia, and closes on something gaining traction around the world: indigenous populations can maintain ecosystems better than most while still living and making a living as they occupy those territories.

Over the next several decades, as a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, she studied collaborative management systems developed by cattle herders in Switzerland, forest dwellers in Japan, and irrigators in the Philippines. These communities had found ways of both preserving a shared resource – pasture, trees, water – and providing their members with a living. […]

The features of successful systems, Ostrom and her colleagues found, include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions. […]

Ostrom insisted that complexity was as important to social science as it was to ecology, and that institutional diversity needed to be protected along with biological diversity. […]

Community-based conservation can’t solve everything, and it doesn’t always succeed in protecting the commons. In many cases, national governments don’t recognise the longstanding land claims of Indigenous and other rural communities, creating uncertainty that interferes with community efforts to manage for the long term.

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